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Bob Beaty

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When Freelancing, Free Can Be Very Expensive

Posted: 06/30/11 01:51 PM ET

When you hang out your shingle as a freelancer, everyone seemingly wants your help. They just don't want to pay you. Or they turn out to be time vampires who simply want to waste productive work hours and/or suck knowledge from you.

Stake them. Life's too short.

I have previously mentioned that we freelancers spend 100 per cent of our time finding work and 100 per cent of our time trying to get paid. Try not to let that happen. Waking up in a cold sweat at 3 a.m. with the money spins gets old, fast.

Even after 15 years of doing freelance writing and consulting, I still get the odd call about doing something merely for 'the exposure.' Or the calls that start out: "We can't pay you" or "We can't pay you much." Awesome.

It's always amusing to realize that the folks who want to grind you to your financial base elements seem to always get paid, but somehow, we as freelancers are supposed to cheerfully line up and get screwed. Oh, and we don't enjoy the experience, to finish the thought.

The most critical point in any client relationship is when the prospect utters those fateful, yet daunting words, "What will it cost?" Those words represent both pain and pleasure for the freelancer, as we are close to getting the gig, unless we price ourselves out of the market. The next part of the conversation is critical as you say; "I'll need to see the scope of the work. I prefer to work on retainer at the beginning as it allows flexibility on both sides." Charging hourly rates for a job that could explode in your face if you don't have a handle on it, tends to end badly, unless it is a one-off assignment.

Retainers work best for both parties in my experience, depending on the type of work. Graphic designers and IT geeks (said with absolute respect and envy) tend to work on an hourly rate while writers, consultants and communication types are likely better served on retainer. The benefits to a retainer for the freelancer are surety of income, no embarrassing grovels for more money and no potentially job-ending discussions regarding the expanding scope of the work. Again, in my experience, the client gets much better value paying a retainer than paying hourly.

For the client, it means one cheque a month, the ability to pick up the phone whenever and not feel like the money clock is ticking. And make the retainer for a realistic time frame; say one to six months depending on the gig. Three months is usually doable for most clients and the ability for both parties to annul the other after a short period certainly has its appeal. Renegotiation after the initial three month contract term is much more fun that trying to justify yourself for the final couple of months of a too-long engagement.

Most clients will ask me, once the deal is set; if there is anything else they need to do? I tell them no, all I require is to be paid on time. I'll take care of the rest. If there is any problem with payment, unless discussed prior, work will stop until it is rectified. Seem harsh? Try and stickhandle the client after they have missed a couple of payments but they still want work. That, gentle reader, is a verbal choreography worthy of Twyla Tharp.

I have found most clients to be responsible when there are money issues. In my career, I have only had to sue twice. Note to clients; if there is a money or a timely payment issue, be proactive. Working with the freelancer will likely keep everything professional and the work flowing. And ensures that you aren't the subject of someone's vitriol via blog, Twitter or other anti-social media.

Freelancers have extremely long memories. I wrote in a previous piece about professionalism. It works on both sides. No one who ever remained professional in contract dealings is disappointed, unless the client (or the freelancer) is a sociopath. There are plenty of those types of clients out there, but that's another article.

Poll your peers and find out what they charge. If you have experience and a portfolio and references, charge more. If not, charge less. Pretty simple.

To get an idea of what the client is willing to pay is to ask if they have a budget for the work. Most do, and it helps the negotiations if they open with that number. Don't immediately ask for it all. The tack is then to explain why it isn't enough, or, and this is critical, why you can do it for less if that works. Saving clients money is always a good career move.

Most clients have no idea what your work is worth. Open-ended hourly rates tend to scare them. A proposal of work and delivery dates against a fixed price is something they can easily process. And takes away the fear of overages. You never want a client to be afraid to pick up the phone or send an email. Open contact by both parties allows a great relationship to develop based on the work, not on the money, which is the best way to turn a short term client into a long term one.

Sure, take some pro-bono work periodically if the gig actually does give you good exposure, the prospects of the company look solid, you can ask to be referred to bigger clients, you can see money coming in the near future or just for the pure Karma. The freebies have to understand, though, that they aren't in first chair when it comes to work; paying clients always come first.

Never forget that while a Karma-rich pro bono client might be a charity or non-profit, you aren't. That oversight can get very expensive.

 

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